I was recently challenged by one of my favorite Kent entrepreneurs — Ron McDaniel of Liquid Learning and Buzzoodle fame — to come up with my list for things I wish I could change in Kent. If I wasn’t one of Ron’s paying customers (my blog runs on his software) I’d think he just wanted to see me get tossed out of Kent because how can you possibly come up with such a list without offending someone. But I know Ron better than that, he’s a big dreamer (and he’d never want to lose a customer), so I’m sure his challenge was offered in that spirit. So I’m taking his challenge and at the risk of being run out of town, I’ve come up with my top ten list for things I wish I could change in Kent.
Things I wish I could change…
10. Move the Railroad Tracks — I wish the railroad tracks didn’t separate our downtown entertainment district (Franklin Avenue) from the Cuyahoga River. That section of the river is really pretty and it would be a great spot for the restaurants on the east side to build outdoor seating that overlooked the river but the rail line is right in the way. One friend recently suggested building a terrace level over the tracks that would allow downtown restaurants to put outdoor seating and maybe throw in a music stage that used the river and the dam as the backdrop. He even thought it would be cool to put a see thru floor that would allow you to watch the train rumble down the tracks beneath you. I’ll bring the hammer.
9. 1-800- KENT – I wish I had a city manager’s version of the Batman bat-line with direct phone access to all our residents because too many times mis-information rules the day and causes people to get worked up over things they think are going on that aren’t even true. Of course, I’d also need one of those clock-stopper watches so that I would actually have the time to chat with 27,000 residents and another 24,000 students but sometimes it seems like it would be worth it. Chasing bad information around is like trying to round up a bunch of loose chickens — and once they’re out of the barn it’s really hard to get them back in. The truth is this blog is actually part of my effort to stop bad information from seeing the light of day and gaining any momentum.
8. Downtown Fitness and Recreation Center – I wish we had a downtown fitness and recreation center. Kent State has a great wellness center but wouldn’t it be great to have a place for Kent families to work out and play together that also happened to be downtown. I know the planners would argue that’s probably not the highest and best use of valuable downtown land which could be more profitably used for commercial purposes but I’d argue that the presence of such a center would drive up the value of downtown land because it would bring people downtown — people that would want to grab a healthy lunch after working out, people that would browse a bookstore while their kids played, people that would want to shop and spend a little money. Parks and Rec has been looking around and they’ve been close on a couple of possible locations but I’d like to pitch a downtown location — it’s centrally situated, we want more family style activies downtown and it’s capable of being the kind of people generator that downtowns thrive on. Maybe we can even put it where it’s linked right into the Portage bike trails and our riverwalk.
7. Downtown Merchants — I am one of the biggest advocates for our downtown and all the merchants that work so hard to keep downtown running on all cylinders. We’ve got a good — and underappreciated — eclectic mix of retail, restaurants, bars and entertainment. The thing I wish I could change would be the hours a lot of them are open. Now I’m not retail expert and I understand that margins are slim in their business but after convincing people to visit our downtown those people have called me up afterwards to say “I went downtown and everything was closed except the bars.” I’ve experienced it myself. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in early Fall around 3 pm we strolled downtown looking to visit some of the stores and maybe grab something to eat. Just about everything was closed except the Franklin Square Deli which had a line out the door. A lot of people blame the Walmartization of retail and the malling of America for killing small downtowns — and while it’s probably true that downtowns can’t outcompete Walmart on price or malls on selection and convenience — there’s plenty of consumers that don’t just shop for products, they want a shopping experience, and you can’t beat downtowns for shopping experience — unless of course everything is closed.
I realize it’s a chicken and the egg dilemma — maybe there’s not enough foot traffic off hours to warrant staying open — but I know for a fact that the Kent Stage routinely brings in a couple of hundred out-of-towners each week to see their shows and the Kent Stage owner has told me he gets a lot of complaints that they have nowhere to go either before or after the show to shop and eat because everything is closed. Even the old record store right next store shuts down leaving all these visitors staring in through the windows with money in their pockets while they wait for their show to start.
6. Pool Resources – One of the most frustrating parts of my job is to go from group to group, business to business, and even person to person to talk about Kent and discuss where we’re heading as a city. And no matter how different each perspective may be, remarkably almost everyone wants the same things for Kent. Yet we seem to keep each other at arms length rather than standing side by side to fight for Kent’s future together. Every Kent newby (like myself and Dr. Lefton) all have the same reaction — this place has got it all, we just haven’t figured out how to put it all together to work for us yet. I talk to students and they want many of the same things as seniors who want the same things as business owners who the same things as young families. One by one we have unbelievable commonality of purpose yet somehow we seem unable to translate that in the community context. It’s like looking through a telescope where you see the outline of the moon, and it’s so close you feel like you can just reach out and touch it, yet it stays slightly out of focus. We’re so close in Kent that it drives me crazy not to reach and grab it — but it’s not something the city can do, or the university can do, or the business owners can do — this is only something WE can do together by pooling everything we’ve got to get us that last mile.
5. Haymaker Parkway – As a former transportation guy, I appreciate the value of this 4-Lane facility to get traffic through town quickly but what’s good for people commuting in their cars isn’t so great for getting people to shop downtown. Whether intended or not the Parkway acts like a by-pass around downtown and worse than that it’s also an 80′ moat of asphalt that separates the campus from the heart of downtown. There’s plenty of crossings but it still creates an image of separation — like the Berlin Wall — “you stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours.” The campus and the downtown need each other, it’s time for that wall to come down. My favorite (albeit expensive) idea was from the University Architect who said “wouldn’t it be great if we could take a section of the parkway between Depeyster and Main Street and drop it down like an underpass so that people could walk across at grade to get from the downtown side to the campus side. Maybe KSU could even extend their esplanade right off campus and into downtown. I’ll bring the shovel.
4. Rental Property Balance – I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently emailing back and forth with some of the landlords in Kent to discuss rental property issues that City Council is considering. I always start out saying that I am not anti-landlord, in fact I want them to succeed as a business in Kent. My hope however, is that their success would come from the fact that they offer a superior quality product for students and their neighbors to admire. Not that they cut corners and succeed at the expense of students and their neighbors. Like any business segment, there’s good landlords and less good landlords. The challenge in Kent is that we have a lot more landlords than most communities with rental properties making up nearly 70% of our housing stock. That’s high and that makes for a lot more opportunties for the less good landlords to be exposed – which is exactly what happens and it gives all the landlords a bad name.
It’s a tough business, especially when you mix in so many college-age renters in neighborhoods with families and seniors right next door, but it is a business and I’ve been trying to make the point that every business has a responsibility to be a good neighbor, including rental properties. Instead of rallying against threats of increased regulation, I wish the landlords would do what other business sectors do all the time, they step up and raise the bar on their own. Wouldn’t it be great if the landlords organized their own trash collections together so the rental properties all had their trash collected on the same day — and if they added a special trash patrol over the weekend after the parties.
3. Kent State West Campus — Kent State is such an enormous resource for the city — from the products and services it buys to the people it brings here — that I feel guilty for asking — but wouldn’t it be great if Kent State decided to really reach into downtown and put some part of the campus there. We can call it the “West Campus” (I first heard that phrase from Councilman Hawksley so if you like it, he deserves the credit, not me). We can carry the esplanade right downtown to the new __________ (fill in the blank) KSU building. That simple act by the university could change the daytime activity level overnight. With Dr. Lefton being such an advocate for revitalizing downtown and building a hotel/convention center downtown, I’m actually irrationally exuberant that we might actually be able to pull something like this off. I recently whispered in the ear of the Dean of the Architecture School that I knew a great old hotel that may be a bit of a fixer upper but if done right it could be a wonderful place to locate architecture students.
2. High Tech Business Lab – With all the research being done on the Kent State campus, shame on us for not figuring out a way to grab those emerging business opportunities and incubate them right here in Kent. We’ve had a couple of good examples of successful new businesses that spun-off from university research in liquid crystal technology in Kent but it seems to me that we haven’t really committed to commercialization of new technologies. If we had, we would have built a state of the art technology manufacturing and research park here in Kent. I’ve actually seen some great looking concept plans for such a park but like so many things we haven’t rallied around the idea enough to make it happen financially. Yes, it costs money but at the risk of sounding cliche: sometimes it takes spending money to make money. We need to get this done.
1. Be the Change — I keep bumping into the same theme in a lot of unconnected places so I’m thinking fate is trying to tell me something. I think that something is for each of us to be the change that we’re all waiting, hoping and planning for. People talk a lot about what’s not working and what should be done, and those are important conversations but there’s a time for talk and then there’s a time for actions — and from everything I can see what we need right now is less talk and more effort. We can’t afford to sit and wait for the perfect solution, we’ve got to all be out there building great solutions. And if we get something wrong, no sweat we’ll try something else.
I guess what I’m talking about here is an attitude. It’s time for us to be a little less planned and little more scrappy. We’ve got to embrace that Rocky Balboa in each of us, that underdog who didn’t stand a chance until he became the champ. As we approach Thanksgiving let’s remember that Christopher Columbus didn’t stand around and argue with everyone who thought the world was flat — he just got in a boat and showed them. It’s time to set sail.
All ahead full.